We write to be understood. Our
goal is to communicate. But we also want to use language correctly. Making
errors can undermine our credibility. It can make us look incompetent.
As William Zinsser says, "Bad
writing makes bright people look dumb."
Some errors are painful, such
as the wrong verb form in "I could have did better." Some errors are
inconsequential, such as the missing hyphen in the compound adjective in "a
record setting pace." And some errors are distracting, such as the incorrect
subject-verb agreement in "The problem with computers are their lack of
dependability" and the unnecessary comma between the subject and the verb in
"The temperature at the start of the Seeley Classic cross-country ski race,
was four degrees."
But learning the rules is
only half the problem. We also must know when the rules change. The correct
use of who versus whom is an example.
The old rule was
straightforward: Use who when the pronoun is a subject, as in "Who
wrote this nonsense?"; use whom when the pronoun is an object, as in
"To whom should I send this nonsense?"
See if you can choose the
correct usage in the following sentences:
1. "Who/whom did
2. "Who/whom should I
3. "The person who/whom
wrote this report did an excellent job."
4. "I don’t know who/whom
5. "I know who/whom is
responsible for this mess."
In the first sentence who
is the subject. In the second sentence whom is the object of the
preposition to. (In formal or traditional usage, that sentence would be
reordered: "To whom should I turn?") In the third sentence, who is the
subject of the subordinate clause "who wrote this report." (The main clause is
"The person . . . did an excellent job.") In the fourth sentence whom
is the object of the infinitive
The fifth sentence is tricky.
At first you might think whom is the object of the verb know,
but look closely. Who serves as the subject of the subordinate clause "who
is responsible for this mess." In sentences like this one, pronoun case (the
subjective case who or the objective case whom) is determined by
how the pronoun functions in its own clause.
So, should it be who
or whom in the following sentences?
1. "I wasn’t sure who/whom
to vote for."
2. "She knew who/whom
would do a better job.
3. "Tell me who/whom
won the race."
If you chose, whom,
who, and who, you know the rule. Now for the challenging part. (Did
you think we were already there?)
The rule is changing. Perhaps
because whom sounds formal and stilted to the modern ear, it is
becoming less common. Who is becoming acceptable where whom was
called for by traditional grammar, as in "Who can I turn to?"
I’m fine with that. I’m no
purist. When language changes to reflect the spirit or ethos of the times, I’m
all for it – as long as the change doesn’t diminish our ability to communicate
complex ideas precisely, colorfully, and artfully.